with The days of sitting in a dark, densely packed theater on pause, Landing Theatre Company has made the most of this socially distanced summer by moving its ninth annual New American Voices Playwriting Festival—which highlights the work of four rising American playwrights through staged readings—to a virtual platform. “Part of our idea is to pick up stories you don’t normally hear about or don’t normally see,” says David Rainey, the theatre's founder and executive artistic director. “We always try to find plays that are stick-to-your-ribs kind of stories.”

While the upcoming virtual festival, which begins July 28, will certainly be different from previous summers, Rainey is excited about the new format. Not only has the online medium allowed for the addition of eight panel discussions, but also audience members all have "the same vantage point to the actors," Rainey says. "It allows you to focus more on the story and the characters that are in the story.” Before the virtual curtain rises on the festival, we talked with this year’s rising playwrights about their new works, producing theater online, and the importance of performance in a COVID world.

Amy Berryman, The New Galileos (July 30)

Science and climate change were very much on Berryman’s mind as she started to write The New Galileos, which focuses on three female scientists who are imprisoned by the government for their stance on global warming.  “I was thinking about our current climate crisis, asking the question ‘What are we going to do when we get past the point of no return?’” Berryman says. “I was also interested in exploring the comparisons between Galileo and climate scientists of today, whose work is often censored by the government.”

As an artist, Berryman feels a particular kinship with scientists: “We are both always searching for beauty, searching for truth, searching to make sense of this world, though in different ways.” Seeing this play, which she originally wrote in 2017, through a virtual lens gives its themes of isolation, censorship, and denial of science a new, unexpected layer of meaning, she says. “It hits harder, in some ways, to see it on screen.”

John MiniganQueen of Sad Mischance (July 31)

“I usually can’t write a play unless I have at least two unrelated ideas bouncing up against each other,” says Minigan, who combined his fascination with Shakespeare’s Queen Margaret and his wife and daughter’s experiences as biracial women in academia for his new play, Queen of Sad Mischance.

Queen of Sad Mischance follows Kym, a biracial college senior, as she helps feminist scholar and Alzheimer’s patient Beverly Norden finish her book on Queen Margaret, the female counterpoint of the Bard’s Henry VI plays. “My plays are most often about characters who are in the process of rejecting long-held systems of belief and are trying to find new paths forward,” he says. While Minigan misses traditional live theater—especially “what happens with an audience in the room”—the playwright does appreciate “the speed with which projects can be proposed and completed, calling it amazing. “I’ve been amazed by the level of work and the level of creativity happening online.”

Angela J. Davis: AGATHE (Aug 1)

Davis has a fascination with exploring and highlighting what she refers to as “the other side of history,” and her play AGATHE is no exception. The drama follows the story of Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, known for being the titular head of Rwanda for the 14 hours before her assassination during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. When conducting research for the play, Davis, struck by how “Agathe was often mentioned only in passing, and sometimes not at all,” wanted to centralize Uwilingiyimana's story and celebrate her contributions to Rwanda.

Though Uwilingiyimana, who assumed the role as head of state after Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, served for less than a day, her country now has “record numbers of women in government,” says Davis. “As such, she’s a beacon for our time; an example of bravery, devotion to peace, and moral choice during a time of relentless hatred.” And what better way to recognize Uwilingiyimana than through the theatera medium Davis says “will always be a force for humanity, for deeper understanding of ourselves and our world, and a means of bringing us closer together.”

Kirby Fields, The Best Punk Band in Conway, Missouri: An Oral History of Presley Cox and the Fallout Five (Aug 2)

Fields has been taken with the punk genre since he heard Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruits for Rotting Vegetables in the seventh grade. “At one point the music dropped out and the leader singer, Jello Biafra, sang, ‘God told me to skin you alive,’ as he then thrashed his way into a song called ‘I Kill Children,’” Fields remembers. “For whatever reason, I heard that line and knew that I wanted more.”

He’s found that “more” in The Best Punk Band, an oral history-like play that follows the rise and fall of a 1988 punk band through the eyes of the band members. Though Fields is embracing the virtual experience as best he can, he misses the live, communal element of theater. “I look forward to the day, hopefully not too far down the road, when we can all safely be communing together in spaces other than our own homes.”

July 28–Aug 2. Free, (reservations required). Online. More info at landingtheatre.org. 

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